Letter from Isoke No 7: Violent incidents at Isoke school
Letter from Isoke No 7: Violent incidents at Isoke school

Liz Hodgkin, RVI Fellow and former Amnesty International Sudan researcher, is teaching at St Augustine’s  School in the village of Isoke, in Eastern Equatoria, South Sudan. This is her seventh letter from Isoke. Other letters: No 1 July 2012, No 2 October 2012, No 3 November 2012, No 4 December 2012, No 5 March 2013, No 6 April 2013, No 8 June 2013 and No 9 September 2013

Last term was the first time at Isoke School that we didn’t have to end early from lack of food, so perhaps we are getting on a firmer foundation. Sorghum from the school garden lasted a month this term and there will be plenty of cassava next term.  There are more pupils this year—over a hundred more than last year—but that also means there is more fee income for the school to use.

But there have been a number of violent incidents: one student punched a teacher and was expelled. The man he punched was Ambrose, the CRE teacher (Christian Religious Education). Ambrose is a former child soldier and a Dongotono, as is the boy who punched him, and they are distantly related. After a week in hospital in Ikotos, Ambrose came back and—correctly, I thought— asked the head to forgive the boy who had hit him. The head—correctly again, I thought—refused. I spoke at length to the boy, advising him to count to ten in future. He’ll be going to the secondary school in Ikotos now. We won’t be sponsoring him anymore, so he will have to find the money.

There were other acts of violence. The Head Boy, who comes from Central Equatoria, suffered tribal abuse. A girl was beaten by two boys, her relatives. Other students apparently looked on and didn’t intervene. The Head Teacher told me that he was going to beat the culprits in front of the whole school and then expel them. They were expelled, but I don’t know about the beating. Another girl was kicked by a boy, again a relative. Such incidents didn’t happen last year. 

Robert, the library prefect, says he thinks many of these antagonisms start with food: either prefects give large helpings and it runs out, angering people, or they give small helpings and the complaint is of tribalism or favouritism.

The first film show

There are two Italian teachers here from the Association of Volunteers in International Service (AVSI). One of the teachers, G., is a footballer, a good role model. He thought that the incidents of violence were related to the lack of recreational activities and clubs at the school. A Ugandan colleague said that his school in Uganda had a Christian students’ society, and AIDS group, a Literary Club, several sports clubs and a Drama club. Here we only have football - and Scrabble (only a few play). The chess and draughts have disappeared.

So G. started a film-showing each Saturday, at the hospital. He faced difficulties, though, from the Head Teacher, who said that the students would pick up infections at the hospital. (Though this is ridiculous, as students go to the hospital every day.)  Or else, the Head said, they would slip away for the night. (This is equally ridiculous, as the school has no wall, so that it is perfectly easy for students to slip out for the night, as one senior girl did recently.) 

The first film G. showed was Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ. This was on Good Friday; only 13 listed students were allowed to go. Then he showed Narnia and Shrek. He stressed the Christian allegory, but didn’t let me know in time for me to prepare a explanation for the students. In Narnia the students saw snow and trains, and ogres. (The latter actually crop up on the English syllabus, in folktales.). I suggested that a better alternative might be films about Africa or made in Africa, such as Biko. But G. has his own ideas. Anyway, as a result of the burst of student violence we had to suspend films at the end of last term. We had a formal meeting with the Head and it was agreed that they would be a normal occurrence on Saturday evenings next term. G. means to start with ET. What with ET, Shrek, The Passion of the Christ and Narnia these kids, few of whom have seen films before, will get a strange idea of life in western countries.

Beatings and gardening duty

For the first time, in April, they put me on joint 24-hour supervision duty with my colleague L., who teaches commerce. I don’t think anyone thought I would be very serious. They just thought that I should earn my $300 pay-check by taking part. “OK. No beating”, I said to L. I read aloud to her the transitional constitution of South Sudan, which prohibits beating in schools. This clause was, of course, clearly inserted by wimpish foreign human rights advisers.

All the teachers beat misbehaving students, and the kids don’t complain. So I don’t make waves about it. But I do get tired of being told “we Africans learn through our buttocks”. In my first day of duty L. pulled a group of students out of Assembly for some serious crime like wearing sandals. I gave up and escaped to the staff room. I could hear the thwacking of the cane. It merged with the sound of an axe felling trees in the distance. One or the other continued for the next hour, a sign of my powerlessness either to save the environment or the students. I suggested that we should have a rule that only a woman teacher can beat a girl-student. Everyone seemed astonished.

The other common form of punishment is gardening. Sister P. says teachers prefer beating because they are too lazy to supervise gardening. I complained that students were right outside my classroom being punished by cutting grass. “Can’t you at least punish them in their free time?” I said. “But that wouldn’t be a punishment”, said the teacher on duty.

Examination time

How different this place is from schools in Europe! Left by the teacher to copy notes or do exercises the class remains totally silent. Or if the teacher has given them nothing to do one of them takes over teaching. For the first term exams, the teacher would write the exam on the board and leave the class to it, with an apparent certainty that there would be no cheating.

Marry or learn

After the elopement of one of our sponsored students, L., the Commerce teacher, and myself have been interviewing every one of the 36 girls in the school to see if there were any others in danger of leaving because of marriage, forced or unforced, or parental antagonism to education. Twenty of these have lost their fathers, six of them by shooting.

The first day we interviewed them about their families, their preferred subjects and what they wanted to do when they left. But we felt we were not getting enough information about whether they were in danger of being taken out of school to be married. So L. began to quiz them quite aggressively: “We know that among your people they marry girls off early, at the age of 12 or 13’” she would say. “Will that not happen to you? What if your brother needs the cows for a wife? Will you not leave to get married?

Every girl said they wanted to continue, but many one feared for. If they were from Acholi, they might insist—“No, our people leave a girl till she is 18….” If not, we would have to push further and say “What will you do in your village when all your friends are married and you aren’t and they are abusing you for being old and not married?”. One of them hung her head and said, “They are already abusing me”, in an almost inaudible voice. We fear she will not stay long at school.  

Sometimes one of the girls would protest strongly and wonderfully. “No, I am not even thinking like that,” said one. Another said “No, if a millionaire comes for me I will not accept him”. And another: “They are already abusing me and I don’t mind”. A Didinga girl from a very remote village said: “When my mother said that I should marry, I said to her: ‘My mother, send me to school, I don’t have a father, I don’t have brothers, I don’t have sisters. You are crying but I must continue. Here there is not even a good hospital, the people are suffering, and no boy from our village has finished school. I will be a doctor or a nurse’”. 

We would press them also on how they would find the money; a supportive father was the most important thing, but mothers were more likely to be supportive (and many of the girls had lost their fathers). Uncles, cousins and brothers might be good or negligent. Many spoke of the difficulties: “Money is not there.” “Hunger is there”.  

Brewing beer to pay school fees

AVSI only pay half school fees as they think that able-bodied young people should be sufficiently motivated to earn half the cost.  Obviously the way one would like people to get money is by selling crops, but the easiest way for a woman to earn money is by brewing alcohol. (Custom dictates that men can’t do this.) Ten girls named alcohol-brewing as a way they or their mothers got their school fees. I asked AVSI whether, by giving only half-scholarships, they were not increasing alcoholism and, consequently, deaths by gunshot in Sudan. They said that this policy of paying only a half fee was set as the plan till 2017.

For our own sponsored students, I have given full scholarships for next term, since May is the planting month, apart from selling cassava, which is ripe now, it is more difficult to get money at that time. and I thought students should spend the month helping in the farm. But I warned them that we would only pay half fees for the third term, when students should be able to harvest what they planted in May. (Since then, I’ve heard that there the vital May rains haven’t arrived and the ground is too hard for planting).

The village where no men are left alive

Encouraging schoolgirls to make alcohol seems to be a problem in a country with so many alcohol problems. My language teacher said "Dongotono have no respect for life, including their own", and told me another story of killings of two weeks ago, of two brothers who, quarrelling over cows, shot each other's cows. Following that the younger shot the older and a friend shot the younger in revenge. Three people have told me there is a village in the mountains where there are only women, with no men are left alive.  But noone could remember the name. So I think it must be a Dongotono myth.

Women’s empowerment for peace and agricultural security

I hope this drought won’t destroy everyone’s plans. Thanks to Father B. and Mama M. and the project they call “Women’s Empowerment for Peace and Agricultural Security”, Isoke is in the vanguard when it comes to empowering women in agriculture, peace-building and literacy. After months of work the diocesan mechanic, Michael—who studied agricultural mechanics in Denmark, and has refused good offers of work elsewhere with higher pay—got an old Italian-donated tractor going. When I had left he had already ploughed the parish land. And we had a lovely 10 days when an Ethiopian from UNESCO and a Dinka from the Ministry of Education led a workshop to train adult literacy teachers, who will focus on women. More on that later, but they were both great people, and we had a week of interesting late-night discussions. That is the good thing about the Fathers' house. Nice people come to stay. And the television is broken.

Read on: Letter from Isoke No 8